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Senate panel votes for sweeping improvements to vets' benefits

Jul. 25, 2013 - 06:18PM   |  
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An omnibus veterans’ bill approved July 24 by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is chock full of improvements in health and benefits programs, according to a summary released by the panel.

They include major changes in the treatment of sexual assault victims filing disability claims, improvements in GI Bill tuition payments for veterans attending school in states where they are not legal residents, and new health and employment programs.

The Veterans Health and Benefits Improvement Act of 2013 includes provisions taken from 35 separate pieces of legislation introduced in the Senate this year. It was passed by vote vote, with the only concern related to the potential cost.

The text of the bill was not made available by the committee and will not be publicly released until the measure is reviewed by legal counsel and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office provides an estimate of the costs. The committee may have to find a source of funding to cover some of the benefits improvements before the bill comes to the Senate floor for a vote.

Here are some key provisions:

Sexual trauma

For victims of sexual trauma, the bill has a precedent-setting proposal that would assign a case officer to serve as liaison between the Veterans Affairs Department and veterans for each disability claim. The case officer would provide advice and general information.

It also would modify rules for getting a medical examination to show a mental condition is related to sexual trauma. A new exam or medical opinion would be required only if the record before a claims examiner does not contain a diagnosis or opinion of a mental health professional that corroborates the occurrence of a rape, assault or other incident that resulted in trauma.

The bill would extend counseling and treatment of sexual trauma to include trauma suffered from incidents on inactive duty training.

Education benefits

Effective July 1, 2015, the committee would require public colleges and universities to charge only in-state tuition for any veteran who enrolls in the school within three years of separation or retirement from the military. A nonresident who did not enroll within three years of ending military service could still be charged the higher out-of-state tuition rate.

Employment

Federal agencies would be required over a five-year period to hire a combined 15,000 veterans to fill existing vacancies, and states that receive grants to encourage hiring of veterans would be required to recognize military experience when issuing licenses and credentials.

Improvements also would be ordered in the transition assistance program to provide more information on disability-related employment and education programs.

Several changes in the bill are related to veteran-owned small businesses. VA would be required to provide more contracts to small businesses, and surviving spouses of service members and veterans would be extended preferential contracting status.

For a surviving spouse of a veteran whose death was not service-connected and whose disability was rated at less than 100 percent, a small business would continue to receive preferential treatment for contracting for three years after the death. If the death was service-connected or the veteran was 100 percent disabled, the preferential status would remain for 10 years.

Health care

Chiropractic care at VA hospitals would be expanded and a two-year test program would be authorized to promote veterans’ health by paying for fitness club memberships for overweight or obese veterans who live more than a 15-minute drive from a VA fitness facility.

Survivor benefits

Surviving spouses of service members who die in the line of duty would be eligible for The Fry Scholarship, which provides full Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits to each survivor. That program is currently limited to surviving children.

In addition, Fry Scholarship beneficiaries would be eligible for the Yellow Ribbon grant program, under which private schools and VA make matching contributions to reduce the tuition and fees owed if costs exceed GI Bill reimbursement levels.

The bill also would reduce to age 55 the point at which a surviving spouse could remarry without losing eligibility for dependency and indemnity compensation, medical care, education benefits and home loans. Current law allows survivors to keep their benefits upon remarriage only if they are age 57 or older when they remarry.

An additional survivors’ allowance of $250 a month paid to surviving spouses who have minor children would be provided for three years instead of the current two years. The allowance would still end if a child reaches age 18.

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